Friday, May 31, 2013

Traumatizing Your Characters, Part 5(B): An interview with Kristin Halbrook, author of NOBODY BUT US, who did the thing properly.

Today we have an interview with Kristin Halbrook, author of Nobody But Us, which I discussed in Wednesday's post. I sent Kristin a few questions about her book, and when I read her responses, all I could think was, "Okay then. That would explain why Nobody But Us was so well done." So, without further ado, here's Kristin (and please enter to win a copy of Nobody But Us at the bottom of the page!)

Did you base the character of Will on a real-life person or a conglomeration of people you've known?

Will is definitely his own man, but as his character developed more and more, I did start to see some attributes of people I've known--people who have had tough childhoods or teen years--coming out in him. Digging into those similarities, I discovered that some common features of the lives of those I know and of Will are a lack of early guidance, a life missing steady and grounded adults to use as examples for what their lives should be like, a lack of meaningful connections, and difficulty managing emotions, expectations and goals. 

One of the questions I started asking Will--and a question he asks himself--is how does he become a man (an adult, really) when there's never been anyone around to show him how to get from where he is to where and who he wants to be? So he flails as he tries to figure out how to shape his life. This person, the one who has dreams, rather than goals, and not a good sense of how to reach them, is someone I've known many times in my life. They're never "bad" people, and neither is Will. They're simply people floundering, trying to rise above their pasts and make something of themselves the best way they know how.

Did you do any research on how early trauma affects young people? Were there any particular facets of that you wanted to highlight in your characterization?

My research began with looking at some accounts of adults and older teens who had grown up in the foster care system and what their lives are like now. As you can imagine, there are a variety of experiences shared in these accounts, but they were a stepping stone to reading further about early trauma. I also read extensively and talked with a friend in the field of clinical psychology about personality disorders, including how they develop, whether or not they could be genetic, and how they manifest in a person's behavior.

In particular, I looked closely at depression, dissociation, hyper-arousal continuum, and post traumatic stress disorder. There are hints in the book that Will's mom may have suffered from severe depression or even bipolar disorder, which Will can't find out about for sure because he doesn't have contact with his mom. He questions whether he suffers from those, too. That is never resolved. However, his outbursts and inability to control his emotions, including anger and extreme protectiveness, are results seen in young people who cope using the hyper-arousal continuum (the "flight or fight" response) and in many sufferers of PTSD, which is something victims of child abuse can and certainly do develop.

How would you explain Will's character to someone not familiar with his past?

I would say that Will is a teen, with all the passions and high-strung emotions of everyday teens . . . multiplied by ten. I would say he is trying, really hard, but that his "life toolbox," the place where many people store acceptable learned social behaviors, is mostly empty. I would say that he is a victim of abuse and of a system that couldn't quite catch him when the cracks opened up and let him fall through. I would say that he wants to get beyond his past, that he wants to recover, feel whole, that he's trying, but that he's completely on his own in doing so. His life has taught him that there's no one who wants to help him and, as his story progresses, he feels that he may have gone too far, that maybe no one can help him. He clings to Zoe's love like it's his salvation, but unfortunately, she's broken, too, and not in a place to be the person who can help him.

Zoe is also a traumatized character, but your portrayal of the two of them is quite distinct. It really drives home the idea that all traumatic experiences are not the same, nor are the people who endure them. Can you talk a little about how you went about showing those differences?

Will and Zoe have coped with their abuses using techniques that are nearly polar opposites. One of the major differences in the way Zoe endures her trauma compared to Will is that Zoe turns inward to cope, rather than lashing out. Zoe is like a turtle, trying to build a shell defense that she can escape into anytime she feels threatened. Her mechanisms include social isolation, preferring to be anonymous in her small town and allowing only one person to be her friend, and dissociation. This is particularly seen in the moments she imagines herself somewhere else--in her yellow room--when she's being abused and in the way the memories of her mother's death are able to be warped by her dad, later to be recovered by Zoe.

I did feel it was important to show two distinct experiences with these characters. Because there isn't only one way to endure, to cope, to deal, to escape and, ultimately, hopefully, to find help and heal. Humans are complicated creatures with a variety of defense mechanisms and reactions at their disposals.

Wow, right? If you're researching a character who's experienced trauma, let us know how you've done that! And, have you ready Nobody But Us? Would you like to? Enter to win a copy below! And, I'll be back next week to go into depth about the symptoms of PTSD, with plenty of examples from YA books.

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  1. I've been looking at this book and really want to read it. I've also enjoyed your posts on trauma - very informative!

  2. I haven't had the chance to read Nobody But Us yet - but it's been on my January TBR list! Kristin, I admire the depth of your research for this book! Researching depression could not have been easy. I'm impressed at how you wrote Zoey and Will in different manners when it came to their abuses! That is some talent! I'll have to get Nobody But Us at the public library when I go! :)

  3. I like how she contrasts the character's ways of coping, like yin/yang, which will also allow more readers to relate.

  4. The book looks fascinating!

  5. This book looks great. It's been on my TBR for a while and I can't wait to read it.

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  7. Very excited to read this one. It sounds like you put a lot into the characters and traumatizing them:) Thanks for the chance to win!

  8. would love to read this book, sign me up :D